Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Moor Dies of Heartbreak

February 27, 2008

Ian Storey and Cristina Gallardo-Domas
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Let me start by saying that the LA Opera production of Verdi’s Otello currently on stage through March 9 is worth seeing. It’s probably not as crucial in the overall scheme of things as their production of Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg that is running opposite it, but it has its own charms. Not the least of these is another class act from music directory James Conlon, whom I waxed eloquently over just a few days ago. Having already heard him lead Don Carlos and Traviata in 2006, I feel confident in saying we have an exemplary conductor of Verdi’s works on our hands here. It is ironic that while Conlon is marshalling through some very big and significant German repertory for LA over the next few years, he is equally dazzling in bringing the requisite motion and dynamic pacing to the works of the Italian master. Now if we could just get some casts that are more consistently up to his standard.

Of course, for Otello, it’s not like they didn’t try. Two of the three principals come with recent major casting credentials under their belts – only neither worked out so well for them in the end. The Desdemona, Cristina Gallardo-Domas, starred as Puccini’s Butterfly in the new production that opened Peter Gelb’s glorious revitalization of the Metropolitan Opera in 2006; and Ian Storey, here as Otello, opened a new Tristan for La Scala under Daniel Barenboim to open the current season in December 2007. Both were savaged by critics for these appearances creating some mixed expectations for them in their debuts on these shores. My inclination when reading this kind of press is to give these people a break. Still, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed. It is true that Storey doesn’t quite have the heft to pull this all off without his Otello just seeming comically depressed along the way. He looks like he’s really working hard up there, which can be a bad thing. Gallardo-Domas is fine but she strikes me as a bit of a gulper when it comes to her vocal lines. Still, her “willow song” wasn’t shabby and she is a serviceable actor. The one true vocal star of the evening was Mark Delavan who grabs the stage from all parties in his wake throughout and received the most admiration from the audience. On a side note, Derek Taylor is the Cassio here and, though a little underpowered, holds his own against the others and is one worth watching in the future. He's also way cuter on stage than in his head shot which is always a nice surprise.

The production is nice, but not brilliant. It has a visual style in the large scooped stage designed by Johan Engels, and director John Cox keeps the on-stage histrionics to a minimum. The set is colorful with some large set elements including a ship’s mast that appears both at the outset and the conclusion of the piece. But while it isn’t bad looking, I thought it all rather tame as if it was too eager to get out of everyone’s way. Overall, though, this is an Otello with more pluses than minuses. And anyway, Mark Swed was right in his review in the LA Times - Domingo is not coming back in this part in LA again, and this isn't at all a bad way for the the company to move on.


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

February 24, 2008

Time for a big hug - Conlon and Repin with the LA Phil
Photo: mine 2008

...is James Conlon. Or at least he’s the title holder in the LA classical music scene this weekend. Like some American Gergiev, JC headed up 3 performances by the LA Philharmonic as well as two performances for LA Opera (Otello and Der Zwerg) all in the course of three days. The man is a machine and perhaps the most remarkable part is how good it all was. The Philharmonic shows included Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony and the 1st Shostakovich violin concerto. Vadim Repin was the soloist and he wowed a very appreciative crowd on Sunday with blazing virtuosity and real passion for Shostakovich’s maniacal masterpiece. Like a Pinter play, Shostakovich should always be equal parts fun and menace and Repin and Conlon proved to be kindred spirits. The Tchaikovsky was lively and Conlon left nary a pause between any of the movements. This may have not been the most detail oriented or piercing interpretation but it had real momentum and purpose throughout. (I’ll talk more about the Otello performance later).

The really unexpected part is this – in this town that Salonen built where anxiety is widespread over his pending departure despite all the big promises of a Dudamel-filled future, Conlon has stepped in and quietly become the next major driving force in the musical life of this community. In less than two years he has developed a beloved following from both local audiences and (I’m told) the musicians playing under his leadership. He has laid out an agenda that he has so far delivered on with fairly good results across the board programming both more Wagner and overlooked German repertory for LAO. He is truly excited about what he is doing and is eager to share it with audiences here personally. For example, he’s been doing most of the pre-opera talks of the projects he’s involved with himself and he’s as likely as not to make comments from the stage before his Philharmonic appearances. He is fully involved in community outreach and has already led two free semi-staged performances of large scale works from Britten and Handel at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown. He attacks everything with gusto and I for one am thrilled about what he’s done so far. We are lucky to have Conlon here right now. So while his LA Phil appearances are done for this year, there are still several performances of both Otello and Der Zwerg to be seen through the middle of March after which JC will be off from LA until the Fall. Don’t miss out.

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More die of Heartbreak

February 23, 2008

Kate Aldrich as Queen Elizabeth I
Photo: Ken Howard/San Diego Opera 2008
It is always tempting to talk about Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda in terms of competition. The cooked-up libretto about the "adversarial relationship" between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart certainly lends itself to this motif. Donizetti further divides the vocal fireworks between these two roles and thus forevermore two artists taking on this production will beg direct comparison. Leave it to San Diego Opera, which is currently staging Maria Suarda, to turn this contest on its head. They have taken a quite vocally reasonable cast and weighed it down in such an awful out-of-date production that the real contest is apparently for most ridiculous period costume. Friday’s real winner, if you want to know, was in fact the tenor, Yeghishe Manucharyan for his white knee-stockings that survived multiple wardrobe changes by everyone else in the cast.

Actually though, while it is easy to sit here and heap criticism on the faults of the evening, I must say I rather enjoyed it. With the exception of Mr. Manucharyan, the cast is more than adequate and at times very good. Angela Gilbert, the Mary Stuart, has been criticized elsewhere for her very mannered singing and far too apparent efforts at breath control. But on a purely auditory level, she was actually wonderful at many points in the evening. The vocal lines appeared intact and her performance was nothing but pretty as long as you weren’t watching her do it. Kate Aldrich, the Elizabeth, fares better in the dramatic performance department, but I must admit that I came away feeling her part wasn’t quite as enticing musically. How much of that is in design and how much is in the performance isn’t entirely clear to me. Plus I had trouble getting over that whole mid-scalp hairline which I know may be more historically accurate but always ups the Sci Fi quotient in my book.

Edoardo Müller led an amicable if underplayed rendition of the score. Still, this was more enjoyable than not and frankly with a better production would have been quite good. Which gets back to all the falderall about why we don’t see more of this and other bel canto operas. Of course there is the party-line garbage about not being able to find singers who can do it. But if San Diego can find a cast this good, it’s hard to believe that no one else could mount a staging as good if not better with more resources. There’s one more performance on Sunday afternoon for those who are interested.


(Going to) Alaska

February 21, 2008

from Alaska
Photo: Diana Szeinblum 2007

It’s been a big couple of weeks for dance events here in Southern California with appearances from Diana Vishneva in the OC and Nina Ananiashvili at UCLA. (For much more coverage of these events check out Art’s Place, an LA performance blog that does a much better job in the dance department than I.) Not to be lost in this shuffle, though, is a great new work that opened tonight at the REDCAT from choreographer and former Pina Bausch protégée, Diana Szeinblum. Entitled Alaska, the piece premiered in her own Argentina last year and is currently on a tour of the US. (There is a somewhat dopey clip of her speaking about the performance here.)

It’s a small and somewhat neurotic piece that purportedly deals with “inner space” or what I imagine used to be more fashionably referred to as the subconscious. The title comes from the idea of place everyone knows about but not many have actually been to. The four dancers – Lucas Condro, Noelia Leonzio, Alejandra Ferreyra Ortiz, and Pablo Lugones are joined with live musical accompaniment from composer Ulises Conti in the black box of the REDCAT. The center of the floor is brightly lit and covered with a white flooring where the performance takes place with minimal props, including only a few chairs, and at one unexpected moment a table that comes crashing from the rafters, splitting in two.

The piece begins with one of the male performers sitting alone in a chair with a sign declaring “Estoy Desesperado”. Soon this unspoken confession takes on the form of flesh as he is joined by the others in various solo performances marked by a set of idiosyncratic gestures repeated over and over. The performers rarely interact throughout the hour creating not so much a narrative, as a reflection of innermost fears and compulsions. These repeating sequences change somewhat over time, but the movement always seems involuntary and highly physical. The dancers’ bodies and limbs are more often positioned by external forces than by their own volition. At other times, the dancers seem to jerk in a repetitive and uncontrolled fashion as if in a seizure - or a least the kind of seizure one has in a conversion disorder.

While the overall effect is far from lyrical, it does have a beauty of its own and succeeds in creating a sense of an internal life that is both funny and at other times distressing. During a break three quarters into the evening, one of the male performers faces the audience from a chair front and center stage and invites the audience to ask him “personal questions.” No one responded to the ironic gesture however. There was no need in that Szeinblum and her troupe had already created a sense of exposure. There are two more performances of Alaska this weekend for those so inclined. These are very strong performances with much to recommend them.


The Shallow End

February 19, 2008

Todd Palmer and Elizabeth Futral
Photo: Long Beach Opera 2008
One thing that can be said about Long Beach Opera, LA County’s other significant opera operation, is that whatever they may lack in organization and dependability, they make up for with spunk. Take their most recent venture, a staged version of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice starring Elizabeth Futral which opened on Sunday. LBO director Andreas Mitisek has been on a bit of a kick lately, staging works in unusual spots around town including a recent run of Grigori Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank in one of a number of parking structures. For Gordon’s Orpheus Mitisek has chosen to exploit the water themes by staging the whole thing in an indoor swimming pool – the Belmont Olympic Pool to be exact.

It’s a crafty idea that works as you might imagine from an opera staged in a swimming pool. The audience was seated on metal bleachers with cushions but luckily, the piece ran just an hour which is about as long as one healthy human can tolerate sitting in these circumstances. Local skate punks crashed and spun and did whatever else it is they do just outside the pool throughout the performance, creating some not so pleasant accompaniment. On the plus side, though, many of the visual elements of the piece were quite splendid due to the lighting effects designed by Dan Weingarten that took maximal advantage of the aquatic surroundings.

The work itself is more of a song cycle than an actual opera and more or less covers the standard version of the Orpheus myth. The work has premiered in other settings around the country, but LBO commissioned Gordon to orchestrate the piece for a small string quartet in addition to the original piano and clarinet to flesh out the sound a little more. Futral plays a narrator and sometimes voice of Euridice. Clarinetist Todd Palmer serves as Orpheus and, like Futral, alternately performs both at poolside and in a small white boat that is moved around the pool at times by a group of four “players” who include choreographer Ken Roht. Since Futral and Palmer have an awful lot of singing and playing to do which prevents them from getting wet, there are also two “doubles” who act out the Orpheus and Euridice parts in coordination with the musical content. All of this is accompanied by an expanded version of the Denali Quartet off to the side of the pool. There are also some videos of the principals projected above the opposite bleachers where Greek-inspired statuary were hanging out around artfully draped fabric. It can all be rather pretty to look at along the way.

Unfortunately, this was not the whole story. While Futral and Palmer’s performances are admirable for their quality and commitment, the material itself doesn’t quite live up to them. Gordon’s music is pleasant, but not much more substantial than much of what you would hear in the standard-issue Broadway musical. The libretto is both obvious and at points outright silly. He also oddly elects to spend over 30 minutes on the lovers meeting, walking on the beach, giggling, and doing all the things people do in TV movies to indicate that they are in love. The non-Oxygen Network events of the story don’t really get underway until the last ten minutes or so, creating an awful lot of build up for very little pay off. Apparently Gluck knew what he was doing when he opened his short opera on the same matter with the funeral. Still, all of this did take some guts and Mitisek and his crew can’t be faulted for trying to make a glorious theatrical event out of what might otherwise be just a meager song cycle.


The Briar and the Rose

February 17, 2008

Mary Dunleavy and Rodrick Dixon
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008

Today marked the opening of the biggest event of a rather lackluster 07/08 season for LA Opera. The company is busy saving all its pennies for future plans, one of which is the “Recovered Voices” series headed up by music director James Conlon. Last season the project kicked off with two concerts consisting of a semi-staged version of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie and brief excerpts from a number of other operas whose composers were adversely effected by the Nazis's rise to power in the early 20th century. Future plans include fully-staged productions of works from others in this group, including Braunfels’ Die Vögel, as well as Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, and Schrecker’s Die Gezeichneten. But first we have the double bill that opened this weekend, whose main course is Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg.

Apparently Zemlinsky needed more than one opera to work out his Alma Schindler issues, so he again turned to Oscar Wilde whose short story The Birthday of the Infanta served as the source material for Der Zwerg. The tale concerns a young princess who is given an ugly misshapen dwarf by a sultan for a birthday present. The dwarf has never seen himself and believes he is a beautiful, noble and artistic knight. He falls in love with the princess who is only interested in having him around for laughs. When he discovers his true image for the first time in a mirror and is rejected by the Infanta, he dies as she returns to the dancing at her party.

The plot is quite a bummer, but it should be said that LAO has made hay with an excellent new production that is well sung and acted. Conlon leads a stirring and completely convincing account of Zemlinsky’s score that comes off as important as Salome in this context. Mary Dunleavy plays the Infanta with conviction and Rodrick Dixon’s dwarf, while underpowered vocally, still manages to be heartbreaking. Special mention should also be made of Susan B. Anthony’s Ghita who almost steals the whole show from both of them. The production itself is directed by Darko Tresnjak of San Diego's Old Globe Theater. It is smart and visually interesting for a design that hews so closely to the source material. Wisely, Tresnjak has elected to plumb the very visual image that served as Wilde’s inspiration for the story in the first place, Diego Velazquez’ Las Meninas from 1656. The costumes, sets, and even some of the visual elements of the production all stem from this masterpiece including an erstwhile chorister who appears as Velazquez himself completing his painting during one of the opening scenes. It’s an excellent production of a rarely seen opera that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who cares about the art form.

Of course, before Der Zwerg, there is some other admittedly less successful business to attend to in the form of Viktor Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug. Ullmann was no slouch at opera either,and Conlon championed a production of Der Kaiser von Atlantis here in LA just a few years ago. But Krug is a very light and, in this case thankfully, very short comedy at just under 40 minutes. A cornball courtroom farce about a broken jug and a falsely accused young lover is set against a rather cartoonish Dutch village set complete with brightly colored windmills. While the music is well-played and worthwhile, the whole thing is a bit much and frankly not that funny. The whole thing smacks of a children’s theater piece with its cloying acting and overly telegraphed staging.

Given the brevity of Der Zwerg, it seems that the desire was to flesh out an evening by pairing it with something else in a Cav/Pag way. Of course this has never stopped LAO from presenting Pagliacci by itself on more than one occasion and while recognizing Ullmann in his own right is a noble idea, this isn’t the work to do it with and not in this context. Still, with something more substantial on the bill, this Recovered Voices double feature is well worth seeing in one of only three remaining performances over the next three weekends.


Meaning it

February 14, 2008

Jordi Savall and Hespérion XXI
Photo: mine 2008
It’s been a bummer of a week. I’ve been sick, which has prevented me from writing much, and on Sunday we all got to watch Groanban and Botchelli urinate all over the grave of Luciano Pavarotti on national TV. So it was a great relief on Wednesday to hear an ensemble with an intellect, talent and passion for their chosen corner of the music world. The occasion was a visit from Jordi Savall, Hespérion XXI and their vocal counterparts including Montserrat Figueras. The program, part of the LA Phil’s “Baroque Variations” series was entitled “Christopher Columbus: Lost Paradises” and featured music and texts from varied cultural sources of 15th century Spain. The two hours of brief instrumental and vocal snippets roughly followed a time line of upheaval both at home and abroad as Ferdinand and Isabella acted against non-Christians in their own kingdom while Columbus was bringing inevitable change to the New World.

The period performance from Savall and his ensemble was excellent if a little hard to relate to. This is music from a different world and it sounds like it. The unassuming melodies can be moving, but they are never about large gestures and are stark reminders of how different things were even by the standards of the 18th century. The performance however was often more admirable than actually enjoyable. Interesting as it may be, it is hard to get worked up over the forced conversion of the Moors in 15th century Spain. And like most Americans, if I don't "feel" something personally, heaven knows I can't relate to it.

Still, it is hard to resist vocal performances of this quality. Montserrat Figueras is great with this material and the Hebrew lament she sang, Mà aidéj? Mà adamélaj , was quite beautiful. Both spiritual and ancient, the effect she creates vocally and visually in performance puts the legions of quasi-ethnic New Age female vocalists to shame. She could break all those Brightman/Enya/Charlotte Church bitches in half. Meanwhile, the male quartet La Capella Reial de Catalunya also offered several pleasant contributions from several composers including Josquin de Près. So, while the evening may not have sent the crowd into hysterics, it was rewarding to see a group of people who care so much about what they're doing do it so well.


Last Call

February 09, 2008

Salonen in 2003
Photo: Stefan Bremer

And so it is with bad news – even though you know it’s coming – there remains an undeniable sting. It is with a heavy heart that I opened the announcement for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2008/2009 season in today’s mail. This will be the final season under the musical direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen and it is no understatement that his tenure here has changed the face of classical music not only in LA but in this country as a whole. While what will follow him may have great promise, it is just that – a voucher of things yet delivered.

So what will this last year feature? Unsurprisingly, it plays out with 9 months of close friends, collaborators, and greatest hits all wrapped up under the moniker Celebrate: Salonen. In many ways it’s my idea of a “dream season.” The programs he will lead will rely heavily on the music of Igor Stravinsky over a number of programs including The Firebird, Le Sacre du Printemps, and, for his final appearance on the WDCH stage as music director in April 09, Symphony of Psalms and a semi-staged version of Oedipus Rex with collaborator Peter Sellars. Sellars will also be involved with Salonen for the twice rescheduled La Passion de Simone from Kaija Saariaho with Dawn Upshaw in January 09. Also in the works is another new Salonen commission to be premiered in April 09 on a bill with Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds and Beethoven’s 5th. Other old friends to appear with the maestro will include Emmanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman, and Salonen will lead new commissions from both Louis Andriessen and Arvo Pärt.

The non-Salonen department has nary a dog in it. Highlights include two weeks of programming under the guidance of John Adams including the LA premiere of A Flowering Tree with the original cast and a second night with his Son of Chamber Symphony. Thomas Adès will lead selections from Berlioz’ Les Troyens with his own Tevot and America: A Prophecy. MTT will bring his Thomashefsky Project down south, Dudamel will try to stay out of Christine Brewer’s way in Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and Christoph Eschenbach will support Julia Fischer in the first Shostakovich violin concerto. And the hits keep on coming with appearances from Marin Alsop, James Conlon, Stephane Denève, Robert Spano, Charles Dutoit, Christian Zacharias, Martha Argerich (Ravel Piano concerto in G), Xian Zhang (Adams, Prokofiev, and Bartok), Lionel Bringuier, Bernard Labadie, Kate Royal, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Gil Shaham. The San Francisco symphony will visit with MTT, Dudamel will perform with the Israel Philharmonic, and Zubin Mehta has a two-night stand with the Vienna Philharmonic. This is a season so good not even appearances from Midori and Joshua Bell can sink it.

I’m totally wound-up now, so I’ll stop here. So enjoy. It may be the end of the world as we know it, but it will likely feel fine.


Under the Influence

February 02, 2008

Scott Shepherd as Hamlet
Photo: Paula Court 2008

Solid flesh may not in fact melt, but this weekend’s performances of Hamlet in a production from the Wooster Group at the REDCAT comes perhaps as close as one can get. After a run in NY, Elizabeth LeCompte and her troupe arrived here with their whiz-bang clever audio-visual spectacle that is visually captivating and worth seeing despite its faults. The performance is built around a 1960s Broadway production directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton that was filmed and then exhibited in a large number of movie theaters around the country over a couple of days. The film acts as template for this performance in that a highly edited and “remixed” version of the film plays continuously throughout on a huge screen at the rear of the stage. The film is not only sped up and slowed down, but images are frequently altered with actors being removed from the scene, or voices coming in then later disappearing sometimes in conjunction with the live actors and sometimes not. Both the set and the actors then emulate the performance as it happens right down to the rhythm, tone and gestures of the film. So strictly is this adhered to that the performance is mostly marked by an unusual movement style in which the actors repeatedly make quick jerky and repetitive movements that mimic the effect of cuts and camera angle changes in the film. Actors often double as stagehands rapidly shifting furniture and other set pieces rapidly back and forth while scenes are taking place emphasizing the same disorienting effect that the protagonist finds himself in. Think of it as kind of an anti-Met Opera HD broadcast.

There are other technological aspects as well including live video of the performance itself that is projected onto a number of smaller screens positioned around the set that the cast periodically raise or lower for effect. Casey Spooner and Warren Fischer have written beat-heavy music that is performed by Spooner himself who plays Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. This double casting is prominent most notable with the roles of Ophelia and Gertrude, handled simultaneously by a mesmerizing Kate Valk. At the center of all this is Scott Shepherd’s Hamlet, which is most interesting to the extent that it is not actually all his. LeCompte strives to suggest the myriad ways in which prior performances from other artists influence later generations of actors. Shepherd is doing Richard Burton as much as he is doing Hamlet in a way that is both simultaneously reverent and ridiculous. By making the performance itself less “natural”, the troupe emphasizes the actual work of the art itself. All the component parts of the operation are on display.

While very clever, fun, and interesting to look at though, even at an edited 3 hours the play still drags at times when it feels that everyone is just trying to get through a bit of explanatory business before moving onto the next real point. Still, the Wooster Group has mounted a Hamlet you aren’t likely to see again soon, so head out before it ends on February 10.


The Royal Treatment

February 01, 2008

Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Photo: mine 2008

I caught the second of two shows from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Wednesday on their current U.S. tour and was unexpectedly surprised. Not that I thought the playing would be anything other than superior, it was just one of those nights where it was the right concert at the right time. The program was standard on-tour fare: Strauss’ Don Juan and Mahler’s 5th. And the performance was excellent: shinning and warm. The middle movements of the Mahler were incredible in particular. I think much of my reaction stemmed from hearing Mahler’s symphony actually played with some dynamics. After hearing the atrocious performance of this same piece earlier this season by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, it was wonderful to hear Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra create an amazing amount of energy and detail with less than 200 people on stage. It may not have been “note perfect” or “transparent,” but it was thoroughly enjoyable and evidence that in fact size isn’t everything.


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